How the war in Ukraine hinders US-Russian nuclear arms control

By Steven Pifer | January 17, 2023

US President Barack Obama talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the phone in the Oval Office, before they issued a joint statement about their continued cooperation on the New START Treaty, Dec. 4, 2009. On-site inspections under New START have been suspended since 2020 and the treaty is set to expire in 2026. (Official White House / Chuck Kennedy, via Wikimedia Commons)

After 10 months of fighting, it does not appear the Russia-Ukraine war will end any time soon. That conflict has begun to impact US-Russian nuclear arms control efforts—first by raising mistrust between Washington and Moscow to levels not seen since the height of the Cold War.

In late 2022, Moscow postponed a planned meeting of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty’s implementing body, the Bilateral Consultative Commission, and the bilateral dialogue on broader strategic stability issues hangs in limbo. Even when—hopefully not if—the dialogue resumes, the consequences of the war will make achievement of US goals on arms control more difficult, particularly as regards limiting Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons.

Nuclear arms control on hold. The Kremlin launched its unjustified invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. The war—or the latest phase of a conflict that began in 2014 when Russian forces illegally seized Crimea—is now well into its 11th month. It has not gone as Moscow hoped, however. The Ukrainian military stopped the Russian army short of Kyiv, pushed the Russians out of northern Ukraine, and conducted successful counteroffensives against Russian forces in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions.

The bilateral strategic stability dialogue was paused shortly after Russia’s assault began. But senior US and Russian officials kept stating their interest in strategic arms control, raising hope that both sides understood the merit of maintaining constraints on their nuclear competition, even at a nadir in the broader bilateral relationship. In a message in June 2022, President Joe Biden wrote “we must continue to engage Russia on issues of strategic stability” even while holding Moscow accountable for its war. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson responded a few days later, noting that the Kremlin was “interested in [such talks]” and that the sides would need to come back to the question “sooner or later.”

The war nevertheless has affected Russia’s approach to nuclear arms control. Last summer, Washington expressed readiness to resume on-site inspections under the terms of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). They had been suspended by mutual agreement in 2020 due to COVID concerns. However, Moscow delayed their resumption, claiming that restarting the on-site visits would not “take into account existing realities” and would lead to unilateral US advantages. Russian officials had protested that its inspectors would be hampered by US visa and travel restrictions, issues that US officials could have resolved.

In early November, Washington and Moscow agreed to a meeting of the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC), New START’s implementing body, which would offer a venue to work out the details for resuming inspections and to address other treaty-related questions. Having this meeting mattered for the broader discussion of strategic stability issues as well as for New START, since US officials had conditioned their readiness to resume that discussion on the treaty returning to its normal functioning.

Unfortunately, the Russian government pulled the plug on the BCC session, literally on the eve of its scheduled November 29 start day. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, attributed the decision to “technical reasons,” adding “this is not a cancellation, but a postponement.” Ryabkov continued, however, that US-Russian arms control was not “immune” from other world events, an implicit reference to the war in Ukraine. Moscow’s decision to postpone the BCC meeting appeared far more political than technical. A few days later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed Russia’s motivation for postponing the BCC meeting: “It’s impossible to discuss strategic stability nowadays while ignoring everything that is happening in Ukraine.”

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So, as we enter 2023, both the BCC and the broader strategic dialogue sit on hold.

“Unacceptable” limits on non-strategic nuclear weapons. The BCC’s delay will raise questions about how the lengthening absence of on-site inspections affects the sides’ ability to effectively monitor New START’s constraints, particularly the treaty’s limit on deployed strategic warheads. The BCC also offered the venue for discussing new kinds of strategic nuclear delivery systems, such as the Russian nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed Poseidon underwater drone, which are not captured by New START’s definitions.

Delayed resumption of the strategic dialogue will also have deleterious effects on the Biden administration’s ability to achieve the nuclear arms control objectives it articulated in 2021. Those goals include addressing limits on all US and Russian nuclear arms, including non-strategic nuclear weapons, and maintaining limits on intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers beyond New START’s expiration in February 2026.

One challenge confronting the Biden administration is persuading Moscow to agree to a negotiation covering all nuclear arms, including non-strategic nuclear weapons. New START deals only with “deployed” strategic warheads—the actual number of warheads atop deployed intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, plus one warhead attributed per deployed heavy bomber. Reserve strategic ballistic missile warheads, bomber weapons beyond one per deployed heavy bomber, and all non-strategic nuclear weapons therefore fall outside of the New START constraints.

An agreement covering all US and Russian nuclear warheads seems a logical next step after New START. That would appeal to American allies for whom non-strategic nuclear weapons pose a direct threat, and the Senate’s 2010 resolution of ratification for New START called for addressing non-strategic nuclear weapons.

Getting non-strategic nuclear weapons on the negotiating table was never going to be easy. Moscow showed no interest in the Obama administration’s proposal in 2011 for a new negotiation covering all US and Russian nuclear arms. In September 2021, Ryabkov qualified the US-proposed position on non-strategic nuclear weapons as “unacceptable.”

The Russia-Ukraine war will make it harder to gain agreement to limit non-strategic nuclear weapons. Russian conventional armed forces in Ukraine have dramatically underperformed Moscow’s expectations. A larger Russian military utterly failed to achieve its initial goals in February and March, even though it was equipped with far more modern equipment than its Ukrainian foe. (Significant amounts of heavy Western arms began flowing to Ukraine only late in the spring.) This almost certainly will lead the Kremlin and the Russian military to place greater importance on non-strategic nuclear weapons as a hedge against failure at the conventional level, particularly as they assess Russian conventional force capabilities in comparison to those of NATO and China.

Moreover, in the past, Moscow insisted that all nuclear weapons be based on national territory and that the infrastructure for their support overseas be eliminated as a precondition for any negotiation on non-strategic nuclear weapons. This would effectively end the nuclear-sharing arrangements under which some 100 US nuclear gravity bombs are deployed on the territory of NATO members for use, if needed in a conflict, by US and NATO member air forces. Those weapons fulfill an assurance role for allies as well as contribute to NATO’s deterrent posture. Given Russia’s use of military force against Ukraine, NATO allies understandably attach greater importance to the presence of those weapons than before—which makes the United States practically unable to accept Russia’s request.

A decade ago already, Obama administration officials rejected the Russian demand that all US nuclear arms be withdrawn to the national territory as a precondition for negotiations on non-strategic nuclear weapons, although some officials allowed that it could be an outcome of a negotiation, depending on the other provisions of a treaty. But, in current circumstances, many NATO allies would likely oppose the withdrawal of US nuclear bombs from Europe, even if that were to unlock the path to limiting Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons.

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Unequal conventional strike capabilities. A second challenge arises regarding long-range, precision-guided conventional strike weapons, an area to which Russian officials attach priority but US officials prefer to avoid. The US military deploys thousands of conventionally-armed air- and sea-launched cruise missiles and has employed them extensively over the past three decades. These systems and their increasing accuracy have prompted growing concern in Moscow. In June 2013, Putin noted that US conventional strike capabilities “could come close to strategic nuclear weapons.”

In 2017, the Russian military demonstrated its own long-range, conventionally-armed air- and sea-launched cruise missiles against targets in Syria. That raised the possibility that, as Russia fielded more of these weapons, it would become less concerned about constraining them.

The Russia-Ukraine war will affect Moscow’s calculation in this regard. First, it turns out that Russia’s precision-guided conventional weapons have problems hitting their targets. One US official last year said the failure rate of Russian air-launched cruise missiles ran from 20 percent to 60 percent. Second, the Russian military appears to have already expended many of its precision-guided conventional weapons against targets in Ukraine, meaning that the United States will continue to maintain a large numerical advantage in this category of weapons. These two factors could lead Russian negotiators to be more insistent on limiting long-range, precision-guided conventional weapons, potentially complicating any negotiation on a follow-on treaty to New START.

The clock is ticking. A third challenge stems from the decreasing amount of time available to negotiate a new agreement. A specific negotiating mandate presumably would be developed within the strategic dialogue, but that dialogue remains in limbo as the clock ticks away. Conventional wisdom holds that an arms control treaty requiring Senate consent to ratification should be finished and submitted to the Senate before presidential politics heat up. The first primaries for the 2024 presidential election loom in just about one year’s time.

The lack of time could impact the question of limits on non-strategic nuclear weapons. Effective verification of such limits would require agreement on provisions for monitoring nuclear warheads—reserve strategic nuclear weapons as well as non-strategic nuclear weapons—maintained in storage, apart from their delivery systems. This would pose more daunting verification tasks than the limits in New START, for which on-site inspections serve to confirm the declared number of strategic warheads on deployed intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The sides would need considerable time to work out and agree on the required monitoring provisions, and time is fleeting—looking both toward early 2024 and New START’s expiration in February 2026.

The United States and Russia have an interest in nuclear risk reduction and in constraining their competition in nuclear arms. It was clear already in 2021 that non-strategic nuclear weapons and long-range conventional strike weapons would pose difficult issues in US-Russian discussions on strategic stability, nuclear weapons, and related questions, especially considering the mistrust between Washington and Moscow. That mistrust has only deepened over the past year, and the underperformance of Russian conventional forces in Ukraine, including by their precision-guided, conventional strike systems, will make stability discussions and any resulting negotiations even more difficult and time-consuming.


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Rob Goldston
20 days ago

Conversely, a balanced approach to strategic stability discussions could provide for a politically viable exit of Russia from Ukraine. The West would have to make some real concessions. It is worth it for the benefits of demonstrating that one nation cannot use its nuclear arsenal as a shield for conventional invasion of another. See: https://thebulletin.org/2023/01/ending-the-war-while-ensuring-russia-does-not-gain-territory-via-nuclear-coercion/#post-heading and https://thebulletin.org/2022/04/the-day-after-the-ukraine-war/#post-heading